Last few days in Australia

Port Douglas - 4 mile beach

We have been spending our last few days in Australia at a quaint sea-side town called Port Douglas, which is situated on the top right hand corner of Oz.  With only about 3000 residents, this tropical island like town can double in size during its peak season from the influx of tourists.  Some trivia:

* Bill and Hillary Clinton vacationed here a couple of times, and were apparently having dinner at one of the town’s restaurants when they were advised of the September 11, 2001 attacks.  They returned to the US the following day.

* Steve Irwin, aka “The Crocodile Hunter” died at a reef just off the coast of Port Douglas when he was stung by a sting ray.

Rainforest Walk

We are renting an ocean facing self-catering apartment for six nights, and have been doing what most tourists do – not much!  The weather has been fabulous – we even managed to fit in a little bit of kite-boarding on two of the days when the wind picked up from its usual gentle breeze.  Another morning we went for a short hike through a rain-forest nature reserve, just in-land from Port Douglas.  I never imagined Australia to look like this – The outback, Aire’s Rock etc had always come to mind when I pictured this country.  The Australian landscape is so diverse.

Water Warning

The only draw back to this beautiful place, is the potentially deadly jelly fish that are found in these waters at a certain time of the year.  We are at the tail-end of the “danger season”, but were still advised not to swim in the water.  They have a small demarcated swimming area that is boxed-off by stinger nets – similar to shark nets I suppose.  A bit frustrating when you are faced with a glorious ocean, but you can’t fully enjoy it.  When we kite-boarded we had to wear a “stinger” suit, a light-weight type of wetsuit that covers most of your skin.

Feeding a wallaby

 

On one of our lazy afternoons, I snuck out to a nearby wildlife sanctuary.  (Andy preferred the couch and his MacBook!)  The sanctuary is home to some of Australia’s indigenous wildlife including kangaroos and koala bears.  I was thrilled to be able to see these marsupials in real life – they are cute beyond words!  I learned that a baby kangaroo is called a joey.  Not be confused with the smaller breed of kangaroo called wallabies.  And there are many types of wallabies too.  One highlight was when a ‘wittle’ wallaby came to eat out of my hand.  I wanted to keep him…

Check the joey in the mother kangaroo's pouch!

Another highlight was watching a joey wriggle in his mom’s pouch, and poke his head out to see what was happening outside.  Adorable!  I was also lucky enough to see a cuddly koala bear awake – they sleep for 18-20 hours a day!  The remainder of their day is spent eating eucalyptus leaves.  Not a bad life, I should say!

Sadly, kangaroo meat is sold at the supermarkets, and also appears on some restaurant menus.  I was horrified that these animals are bred for their meat.  To most Australian farmers, kangaroos are actually pests, so I suppose they don’t mind the delicacy appearing on their plates.  Eating other red meat myself, I guess that I am being hypocritical.  I mean, where do you draw the line of what is acceptable to eat?  Makes me think…

Tomorrow we leave the First World and head to South East Asia.  I reckon that I will be pushed a little out of my comfort zone.  But therein lies the fun!  More exciting stories to come I’m sure!

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Finding Nemo

Our live-aboard dive boat: Spoilsport

Yesterday we disembarked from the live-aboard boat that took us around one of the seven natural wonders of the world: The Great Barrier Reef.  It is the largest reef system in the world and can apparently be seen from outer space!

Our boat was aptly named “Spoilsport”, and we felt spoilt indeed!  The crew ensured that we could do up to 5 dives a day at some of the best dive spots on the reef.  Andy and I opted for 2 or 3 dives per day instead, which we felt was plenty.  (I can only take so much getting in and out of my wetsuit!)

Andy getting his gear ready

We were a full house on board, with 29 passengers being served by 12 crew members.  Unlike a typical beach hotel where holiday-goers keep to themselves, a live-aboard is very sociable.  A group of similar people, from all over the world, who love diving, traveling and the outdoors, came together for 5 days.  We enjoyed getting to know our fellow divers – all had interesting tales of previous adventures that they had undertaken.  (We were able to pick up some tips for our travels to South East Asia later in the month.)  Over meals, which were taken together, the day’s dives were discussed, and underwater photos shared.  In the evenings, Captain Pete would whip out his guitar, and get everyone to join in on cheesy Aussie songs – hilarious!

Our bunk beds

And the diving was great!  We enjoyed pristine coral gardens with an abundance of marine life.  At times the water was so clear, it really seemed like we were swimming around in an aquarium!  With all the diving we were able to see quite a bit – many Nemos and Dorys.  And if I ever got bored towards the end of a dive, Andy was sure to entertain me with his hula-girl impersonation.  Everything seems funnier underwater, okay!

Relaxing between dives

Our final dive was a spectacular shark feed dive.  We must have seen about 30 sharks circling at close-range: grey reef sharks, white-tip reef sharks as well as silver tips.  It was thrilling.  It reminded me a little of my dive with the Great Whites at Gansbaai a few years back … except that time I was in a cave.  These sharks are a little friendlier, so no cage was required luckily.  After the feed Andy picked up a sharks tooth that had fallen out.  Andy the “Packing Nazi” has given me permission to keep the tooth as a souvenir.  (Traveling around the world means that baggage must be kept to a minimum, and means that general souvenirs are always out of the question sadly.  This is strictly monitored by Andy.  I’m known as the “Time Nazi”, ensuring that we are always well ahead of schedule, much to Andy’s dismay!)

Our fellow passengers (we're at the back, right)

At the end of our dive trip, we disembarked at Lizard Island – one of the rumoured honeymoon destinations of Prince William and Kate Middleton.  We weren’t allowed near the exclusive resort though – the only one on the island.  The lack of bodyguards on the island got us thinking that that the rumour was probably not true.  (We have since discovered that the royal pair have postponed their honeymoon.  Oh well!)

The view from our scenic flight

From Lizard Island, we took a low altitude flight over the Great Barrier Reef back to Cairns, where we had originally embarked.  We were treated to a birds eye view of all the places we had explored at sea level and below.  A truly spectacular conclusion to our adventure!

The plan is now to soak up the Northern Queensland sun till the end of the week.  (Besides chilling, I plan to use the time to perfect my impersonation of the Aussie accent.)

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Great Barrier Reef here we come!

Rainbow at Bondi Beach

I have to let you all know that we going to be off-line for a while – we have arrived in Cairns (North East Oz) and are about to embark on a 4 night dive cruise.  And the boat has no internet access.  In this day and age!  So, much to my dismay, I won’t be able to watch the Royal Wedding.  Sniff!  Okay, I’m sure they’ll re-broadcast it over, and over, and over again.  So, I’ll see it eventually.

Check out the tatoo!

The point of the expedition is to dive the Great Barrier Reef, something I’ve been wanting to do for a very long time.  And now the day has arrived!  We’ve been lugging our wet-suits all across the world, so they will finally be put to some good use.

We arrived in Australia 2 days ago, landing in Sydney.  Andy, having lived there back in the day, gave me a whirlwind tour of the city yesterday.  Scenes from “Finding Nemo” came to mind.  We managed to see all the famous landmark synonymous with Sydney: the Harbour Bridge, Opera House, Darling Harbour (pronounced “Dahling Haaba” if you’re an Aussie), Bondi Beach, the Fish Market, Sydney Tower etc.  (Weird to think that the first foreign settlers (including convicts) arrived in the late 1700’s!)

Sydney Harbour

It’s a really pretty city.  Very cosmopolitan, so probably not representative of the rest of Australia.  And freakin expensive!  The Aussie Dollar is currently costing us R7.20 (compared to R6.59 for the US Dollar).  A banana from the supermarket cost us the equivalent of R21 yesterday – what the heck??  And I thought the US was expensive.  Hopefully our Rand will go further when we reach South East Asia.

Okay, so, goodbye for a few days.  (Hope all you South Africans are making good use of all the public holidays!)

 

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Windy Wellington

Taking "leaf" of New Zealand

We ended our whirlwind tour of New Zealand in a windy Wellington. Our motive: to visit friends of Andy’s – a kiwi couple, John and Lulu, who were involved in the early stages of BidorBuy (nearly 12 years back).  John and Andy had actually shared a flat in Sydney for almost two years. I was hoping to dig up some dirt from the past, but alas, the worst was that he had never known anyone to drink as much milk as Andy. Scandalous!  Despite the challenge of a new born baby in the house, John treated us to a lovely home cooked, wholesome dinner of roast chicken. And for dessert: pavlova – which New Zealanders claim to have originated in their country, though this is in contention with similar Aussie claims.

Our morning coffee experience in Wellington

Due to its less than desired weather (we literally were blown off balance this morning), Wellington is notoriously known for its coffee-cafe culture. Apparently there are more cafes per block in the CBD than in New York. And they pride themselves in high quality coffee. Starbucks coffee is looked down upon and known as the “McDonalds” of coffee. (A Starbucks outlet recently closed down, due to lack of support from the locals.) So, this morning Andy and I chilled in a local coffee shop called Mojo’s. We read the daily paper while sipping on our warm drinks, Andy opting for a hot chocolate of course.

Dinner in Auckland with Mike, Carrie and Sarah

We learned that director Peter Jackson and his cast and crew are in town for the filming of “The Hobit”. Celebrities have consequently been sighted milling about. No sightings for us I’m afraid.

New Zealand is truly a stunning country. After originally landing in Auckland (where we spent an evening with other friends of Andy’s), we headed down to Queenstown for the Easter long-weekend. Queenstown is in the south western corner of the South Island, and best showcases the natuaral beauty of New Zealand.

The view of our place in Queenstown

We stayed in an apartment on Lake Wakatipu, on which Queenstown is situated. Being the height of Autumn, the town and surroundings boasted shades of red, orange and yellow, and every shade in between. Periodic breezes would cause the warm coloured leaves to gently snow down. Breathtaking!

Andy feeling the temperature of the water of Lake Hayes

Everyday we’d go for drives to experience the views of the countryside: sheep-dotted green hillsides with snow-capped mountains. We stopped at the AJ Hacket bridge, famous for bungy jumping. Witnessing a few jumps by some tourists was enough to reinforce our view that jumping off a bridge goes against one’s natural instinct. We opted for another adrenalin activity instead: jet-boating through a canyon. A popular NZ attraction where an experienced driver (who missed his dream of being an F1 racer) speeds along a narrow white-water river, narrowly missing the the wall of boulders on either side, and occasionally doing 360 degree spins. It was exhilarating to say the least. Andy said I screamed like a girl – which was the point I think!

Queenstown in the Autumn

We rounded up our stay in Queenstown by celebrating our 11-month anniversary. Yip, 11 months! We wined and dined at a fabulous restaurant called Botswana. (The original head-chef was from there.) We aptly enjoyed a meal of roast lamb shoulder. NZ prides itself in its lamb, and it certainly lived up to the reputation. It might just be the best lamb we’ve ever tasted! After Queenstown, we spent a night in Christchurch with my family (see previous post), before ending off in Wellington.

Having a swinging time in Queenstown

I’ve been impressed with New Zealand, and can understand why so many “Saffers” (South Africans emigrants) have chosen it as their new home. The social benefits are unrivaled – as a South African it amazes me.  Property is crazy expensive though. But that’s the way it is with all places – advantages and disadvantages.

The Kiwis are also rugby mad.  Every second TV commercial has a rugby theme just about.  The upcoming Rugby World Cup is also creating a lot of excitement.  It’s a pity that no games will be held in Christchurch any more, due to the damage the earthquake made to their stadium.

We are now off to visit the neighbouring Australia!

 

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Rocking it out in Christchurch

Last night we felt a minuscule Christchurch aftershock.  It was so subtle – felt like someone was using a jack hammer in the surrounding area.  We were out for dinner (or “tea” as the Kiwis would say) with my Aunt, Uncle, and Cousins who now live in Christchurch.  (They immigrated from SA two years ago.)  Last night’s tremor was commonplace for the locals – one of many that happens sometimes multiple times a day.  People hardly took notice last night.  A local site: www.geonet.org.nz/earthquake/quakes/recent_quakes.html reports on all the earthquake activity in New Zealand.  Very interesting.

"Tea" with family in Christchurch

My uncle drove us around Christchurch in the afternoon, giving us a little tour of the devastation that the earthquakes left.  (The big one being the one in February this year.)  The CBD is still closed off the public.  For many buildings, the decision to fix or demolish still needs to be made.  Most of the debris around the CBD area has been cleared, but many other visible signs remain.  Roads that were once smooth and flat, are cracked and bumpy now.

Mike, Christelle, Marcelle, me and Andy

Thankfully my Aunt and Uncle live on the West side of the city – an area that was not badly hit.  (They have some tiny cracks in their walls, and the floors squeak more, but that’s all.)

More New Zealand photos to follow.  Bye for now!

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Fiji – marking the mid-point of our world tour

Our Island

Fiji wasn’t originally on our itinerary.  But when we saw that our flight from Hawaii to New Zealand would be passing directly over Fijian islands, we felt that we had to include a stop there.  So we squeezed in three nights for Fiji.  (Again breaking our quality versus quantity rule.  But who knows when we will be this side of the globe again?)

This is the life...

Fiji (part of Polynesia) is made up of something like 330 islands!  (Incidently, movies such as Blue Lagoon and Cast Away were filmed here.)  Many of the resorts (like the one we are staying at) occupies an entire island.  Our resort, aptly named Treasure Island, is truly a piece of paradise.  There are only 60 or so villas on the island, so you don’t get that over-commercialized / over-crowded feeling.

Our Villa

Upon arrival we found out that our island was the “family friendly” one, meaning lots of kiddies around!  As opposed to the neighbouring Beachcomber resort, known as the “party island”.  Oh, well,  you can’t always know these things in advance.  The joys of traveling.  While Hawaii is the “Mauritius” of America, Fiji is the “”Mauritius” of Australia.  So, we had to quickly get used to the Aussie accent.

The staff greeting us with some folk songs when we arrived

The Fiji people are friendly and welcoming.  Whenever we mention to staff that we are from South Africa, they just want to start talking “Rugby”.  The bar’s television constantly streams Rugby.  Walking around the island we, are constantly greeted by staff with “Bula” – hello/welcome in the local language.  But I must admit that the service is laid-back.  Island style.  I had to quickly get used to it, and accept it for what it is.  (One luxury cruise trip, and I’m a snob!  I need to snap out of it, quickly.)  With stories of cannibalism in their ancestry, when a staff member says there are no beach towels left, you smile and accept it.

Dolphins swimming next to our scuba boat

Though our stay was short, we got to do a fair amount: scuba diving, jet-skiing, kayaking and snorkeling.  Oh, and more cocktail sipping.  We also found ourselves a coconut that had fallen on the ground, and cracked it open to nibble on its flesh.  A much harder job than we realised.  That husk is thick!

Tomorrow we fly to another part of Polynesia, New Zealand, where we will be doing some sightseeing and visiting with friends and family.

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Magnificent Maui

The view from our Maui hotel

It is Sunday morning, and we have just arrived in Fiji.  Very weird, since yesterday (when we left Hawaii) it was Friday.  Having flown over the international date line during our overnight flight, we totally skipped Saturday.  It is gone.  Disappeared into the ether!  Never to be lived.  That’s what happens when you head west and experience days that are longer than 24 hours.  Got to make up for it eventually I suppose.

We really loved Hawaii!

Honolua Bay - where we snorkelled

After an activity filled time on the Big Island of Hawaii,  we opted for a more relaxed second half of the week on the neighbouring island of Maui (the 2nd  largest of the Hawaiian islands).  We swam in the clear waters, snorkeled, went for runs on the beach, sipped Mai Tais next to the pool, and savoured Hawaiain cuisine (fresh fish, coconut, pineapple, lime, macadamia nuts etc).  Our favourite dessert was the locally made coconut ice-cream – nothing like it!

Andy with our convertible

Another treat was the Magnum PI car we hired: a red Ford Mustang convertible.  We had to have the right wheels for the occasion!  It was so cool to drive around, with the top down, and the wind blowing through our hair.

On our second evening we had dinner with an American couple (Eric & Cheri) that we had met last month on our Caribbean cruise.

Dinner with Eric and Cheri (Fish Tacos)

They have a beautiful water’s edge condo on the north west side of the island, and happened to be in Maui at the same time as us.  After tons of hotel meals, we were spoilt with a home-cooked meal by them.  Once again we found it fascinating to get a local perspective of the US and Hawaii through them.  We loved visiting with them, and trust that our paths will cross again in the future.

Driving around the island

Besides the beauty that Hawaii has to offer, it is an interesting country.  Having become a US State in 1959, it has a unique combination of island style “laidbackness” with first world influence. While it’s first settlers were Polynesian, so many other cultures from the East and West have made Hawaii their home, that the place is truly a melting pot of all diversities.

Hawaiian Sunset

With a time difference of 12 hours to South Africa, we were exactly on the other side of the globe from home.  The end of our Hawaiian visit also marked the half way mark of our world tour.  1 1/2 months down.  1 1/2 months to go.  So far, so good!

 

Coconut Icecream for breakfast - only in Hawaii!

Hawaiian Cuisine - scallops wrapped in bacon with a guava sticky sauce. Yum!

A Wedding at our hotel

Hula Girl!

Sunset Drive in our convertible

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Aloha

There must surely be only one place on earth where you can swim with dolphins in the tropical, crystal clear waters in the morning, fly over snow capped mountain peaks and an active volcano by helicopter in the afternoon ending the day diving with manta rays at night. We did all of this on the Big Island of Hawaii. We decided to stay in Kona, the home of the Ironman world championships. The diversity of the island was amazing. It has deserts, rain forests, cliffs, spectacular waterfalls, stunning valleys, mountains, volcanos, a deep blue ocean, black sand, green sand, white sand beaches (and everything else in between). Interestingly Kona airport is the driest in the US with the airport at Hilo (just 2 hours drive away) being the wettest.

View from our condo

After a bit of a miss on the accommodation at Lake Tahoe, we were very relieved when we walked into our Kona self catering condo. It had all the home amenities we could have asked for and was right on the water’s edge allowing us to sip homemade cocktails and dance the night away to the gentle crushing sound of the waves right on our doorstep. I was surprised at how close to the water’s edge these condos are built. Speaking to the locals, some of the properties were affected by the recent tsunami as a result of the earth quake in Japan, although any damage was not obviously visible to us.

After this experience, Denise and I decided that we much prefer self catering style accommodation compared to full service hotels. Not only is it cheaper but it is also much nicer. This has lead us to rethink the second half of our trip a bit (most of which we have not finalized yet) but you will have to stay tuned to find out how that all pans out. Mahalo.

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“If you’re going to San Francisco, be sure to wear some flowers in your hair…”

I am slightly behind in blog posting, I know.  My apologies.  Since the last post, we arrived in Hawaii, and all intentions of writing something went out of the window.  Upon arrival, we did what any rookie tourist would do – sign up for every possible activity that our schedule would allow.  The tour operator dude that made our bookings can probably feed his family for a month on the commission he earned off us!  So, this is the first little gap that I have had.  (In an hours time we are going to a Luau – a Hawaiian celebratory dinner which showcases island culture and music.  Another tourist trap!  But it must be done.)

Cycling towards the Golden Gate Bridge on a chilly day

Okay, so here’s a quick overview of San Francisco: having only allowed for a 2 night stop, we effectively had a full day to explore the cosmopolitan city and it’s unmistakable landmarks.

Morning: We decided that the best way to get around was via our favourite transportation mode – bicycling!  After grabbing some rental bikes, we made our way around the peninsula of the downtown San Fransisco.

Apparently 1 person per week jumps or attempts to jump off the Bridge

Though sunny, it was a chilly, windy day – but we persevered and were rewarded with some great sights.  The highlight was of course cycling across the Golden Gate Bridge, and enjoying the spectacular views of the Bay.

Lunch: We were told that we HAVE to have Clam Chowder on Fisherman’s Warf when we got to San Francisco.  We’d passed the Warf earlier in the day and were in no mood for Chowder then.  So we opted for Organic Clam Chowder at a Whole Foods Market instead.  Perhaps not the authentic Chowder of the Bay City, but I enjoyed it very much!  (Whole Foods Market is a chain of health foods grocery stores in the US.  It is my favourite place!)

The Rock

Afternoon: Of course no tour would be complete without a trip to “The Rock” Alcatraz.  After a short ferry ride to the island that was once a high security prison, we took a self-guided audio tour which gave us an insight into what life in the prison was like.  (The prison was closed in 1963 and is now a National Park.)  Once home to the likes of Al Capone, the stories of what happened on the island were fascinating!

The prison cells are tiny!

Though there were several escape attempts over the years, most escapees were recaptured, or died in the attempt.  There are 5 escapees who are to date unaccounted for.  Some believe they never survived the swim across the icy waters to the main land, while others believe that they are probably living in Mexico today.

Evening: We dined with friends of Andy’s – ex South Africans (Durbanites to be exact) who are currently living in San Francisco.  While it was a reunion of sorts for Andy, for me it was a great non-tourist glimpse of San Francisco life.  Many discussions were held around how San Francisco compares with a typical South African City.  For one thing, property is MUCH more expensive in SF.  Also, marijuana is readily available – with a prescription – for any ailment you can think of.  (People seem to get their hands on prescriptions in some dubious ways though.)  Train drivers apparently earn $100,000 a year – makes some professionals re-think their career.  All in all, some interesting discussions!

Durban Reunion. From left to right: Eric, Jade, Valerie, Verna, Kevin and Andy

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Lovely Lake Tahoe

Lake Tahoe

After the craziness of Las Vegas, Andy and I sought some peace and quiet and headed west to the other side of Nevada, to Lake Tahoe.  After catching a short flight to Reno, we hired a car and made the scenic drive down to the Lake.  Though spring was in the “crisp” air, the area was still a winter wonderland with all the heaps of snow around.   As we descended into the valley, we were rewarded with breathtaking views of the glassy lake and a panorama of snow laden mountains on all sides.

Andy skimming stones on the surface of the lake

Lake Tahoe is the largest alpine lake in North America – it is as long as the English Channel is wide.  Dropping to a depth of 500m, it is the second deepest lake in the US.  (Many drowning victims are never recovered from Lake Tahoe – the cold water at lower depths apparently preserves the bodies and prevents the formation of gases that would otherwise float them to the surface!)  Moving right along: the longitudinal State line between California and Nevada runs right down the center of the Lake.  So, in circumnavigating the Lake during our visit’s explorations, we yo-yoed between the neighbouring States.

The view from our motel room

Our 2 night stay was spent in a modest little motel on the southern shores. (Not quite the Venetian!  But we needed to be brought down to reality a bit.  All american motels look dodgy to me – I’m always expecting remnants of chalk (used to outline dead bodies) on the room floors.  Okay, I watch way too much TV!  At least we had a great view of the lake from our balcony.)

A lone boat in Spring

Back to the beauty of Tahoe!  What amazed us was how crystal clear the lake water was.  While too cold to swim in, we could imagine what the summer months must be like:  bustling with water sports, and other lake side activities.  From larney lakehouses (with their own private jetties) to stunning campgrounds nestled in the thick pine forests lining the shores, this is the perfect setting for weekend get-aways or summer holidays.  (Lake Tahoe is a mere 3 1/2 hour drive from San Francisco.)  The Winter months boast great skiing in the surrounding mountains.  Having dumped all our skiing clothes earlier in our trip, we forgoed the skiing for a more laid back day.  For lunch we bought rolls and ham and cheese at the Safeway (America’s equivalent of Pick ‘n Pay), and picnic-ed next to the lake.

One of many stunning views

Driving around, I recalled the Tahoe scenes from the movie “City of Angels”, where Meg Ryan and Nicolas Cage spend their one and only romantic evening together in a cabin on the lake.  This after Nicolas gives up his angel status to be with Meg.  (Okay, then Meg gets hit by a truck and dies, but up until that point, some stunning scenery of Tahoe in the movie!)  I think the movie is what put Tahoe on the must-see list of places for me.  Graciously Andy indulged me, giving up tour days that could have been spent in a warmer, tropical climate.  Thanks Andy!

Our set of wheels

After Tahoe, we embarked on our ‘road trip’ part of our itinerary.  With our snacks packed, and Starbucks to-go in hand, we began another scenic drive, which would take us to the West Coast.  Actually it was no more than a 4 hour journey, so more like a Sunday drive than a hard core “road trip”.  The drive took us firstly through forested national parks, and then through rolling green hills (the start of Napa Valley – the Franschoek of California), landing us in the beautiful city by the bay, San Francisco.  But more of that in another post.  (There will be less morbidity, I promise!)

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